Friday, November 20, 2009

Lisa Germano, "Magic Neighbor"

It's shame that casual listeners and reviewers will hear this album and wave it away as just another Lisa Germano album. Every review will feature at least one Michael Gira reference and take note at Germano's signature talent for being simultaneously twee and glum. They'll tell you that it's a nice listen, and present a 7/10 rating to ensure that nobody other than her fans will get too excited about it. It's really a shame, because "Magic Neighbor" might be her best album.

Sure, it's partly Germano's fault. She's long since settled into a comfort zone where she's comfortable playing for her small and devoted fan base and has no interest in taking new risks to get noticed, which is why you don't see her trying to expand into piano-led dubstep or anything.

During the album's perfectly brief 34-minute run time, she repeatedly hits upon the magic formula that made "The Darkest Night of All" one of her very best tracks -- the combination of angst and heart-swelling delicacy, where the whole track floats gently by and you find yourself asking whether you dreamed the whole thing once it's over. It's her most "4AD" album, even more so than the albums she made for 4AD. It feels like dreampop even though it doesn't resort to a lot of studio trickery, which is a tribute to the strength of the songwriting, Germano's use of her voice as a simple yet powerful lead instrument, and light embellishments (echo or double-tracking on the vocals, using the piano pedals as subtle percussion as in "Snow") that give the album its other-worldly qualities. In fact, it's her simplest album in terms of instrumentation. With little more than piano or guitar carrying nearly every track, these are almost fully formed stage-ready arrangements for Germano's solo gigs.

The few mis-steps happen when Germano tries to be too lighthearted and cute, but it's a pill you have to swallow when you listen to her albums. On the title track we get the obligatory cat reference, "he must be G-d, he can turn cats into pieces of furniture, or a couple pieces of furniture" ... OK, she loves cats, we get it, but oh wow is that a horrible line. Even so, she buries this song midway through the album, so it's hardly a focal point on the record. Yeah, the sequencing here is also great, starting with the pretty instrumental piece "Marypan" (which acts like a mini-overture), bouncing between sombre tunes and lighter interludes like "Kitty Train", and finally dropping the hammer with the closing triumvirate of "Snow", "Painting the Doors" and "Cocoon". "Snow" is the album's standout piece, with its sparse opening swelling into almost unbearable tension by the end, reminiscent of (and comparable to) Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" (oh yes, I just went there, believe it, and if you play the songs back-to-back you'll notice the similarities too). After a two minute, piano-only intro, "Cocoon"'s refrain of "make the butterflies go away" feels devastating, regardless of whether you take the line literally or as a plea for the banishment of nervous feelings in the pit of one's stomach.

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